Saturday, July 19, 2008

Turning the Pyramid Upside Down

Remember the final scene in The Da Vinci code? The hero returns to the Louvre, where the story began, and realizes that the “grail” for which he has traveled so far, is at the base of the inverted pyramid in the lower level of the museum. The final competition of the Imagine Cup was held in a hall next to this inverted pyramid. I’ve been thinking about this image ever since, hinting at it at the end of my last entry. In the conversations I’ve had since returning to the U.S. some important insights have emerged from the dialog.

I wrote last week that our teachers may in fact be those who we aspire to teach. Listening to the students reminded me of the value of approaching even familiar situations with beginner’s mind[1]. Having been immersed in technology for over 30 years gives me perspective, especially about the cycles that come and go; it is also an obstacle. It means that the lens through which I look at the world may miss what is new and changing.

Seeing the many presentations and demo’s from over 60 countries at the Imagine Cup drove home the point that innovation can come from the least experienced. These were college and some high school students. There was little if any business experience among them. Yet the level and extent of technology innovation was palpable. It stimulated my thinking about how the work they did could be applied in international nonprofits, especially for emergency response. I brought back with me a hand full of business cards and copies of a few presentation decks. I intend to follow-up with some of the teams.

It was evident from the work the students did, including impressive presentations, that many hours were devoted to these projects. Full-time students don’t have many discretionary hours. My experience at Tuck/Dartmouth reinforced the fact that students are overloaded with work. It is part of the “exercise” of academics, stretching the can-do muscles and learning to effectively triage. 124 teams got it done. Innovation is not about freeing up hours from the required work to do the elective work. Students found the time. To again echo Gustavo Dudamel, “When you love something, you have time; you have a lot of time.”

When we are faced with change and the realm of the new, it is natural to think of the obstacles—all the ways it could fail or won’t work. Experience does that; it gives you a rich set of comparisons. The students I heard in Paris did not have a sense of the practical. If they could imagine it, it could be done; it was worth a go at it—without the baggage of experience. The inexperienced have no bounds; imagination knows no limits. We need this unbridled sense of optimism to reinvigorate our forays into innovation.

Keep in mind that these students were from 61 countries. This was not a competition exclusive to the most advanced nations. In fact, the three teams that caught my attention, Ukraine, Brazil and Indonesia are all outside North America. What does that mean? What it said to me is that innovation can come from anywhere, even the far reaches of the world
[2]. This presented me a more concrete challenge to expand my thinking about headquarters humility—a recommendation I’ve made at conferences to look for innovation in the field rather than down the hall. Humility means not only looking for ideas outside HQ, but soliciting them, expecting them to arise from afar.

Another observation about the Imagine Cup contestants was that these were very small teams; most appeared to be comprised of three to four students. For the innovation teams, small was beautiful. It does not take an army, or a large investment.

At the final award ceremony 27 teams won awards. I was astonished to find out that the competition began a year ago with over 200,000 applications! If ever there was a magnet for innovative ideas about technology from our youngest and brightest minds, this was it. The recognition and prestige of the awards motivated responses from the largest number of places. This is not to be underestimated in an innovation program. This is a brilliant event for Microsoft to run; it provides a pipeline of new ideas and future developers in a way that recruitment programs could not hope to achieve.

What’s the bottom line for Save the Children? We are going to turn the pyramid on its head. Instead of looking to HQ for top-down applications and expecting compliance from our field organization, we are going to solicit and encourage field-based innovation. So we will be starting our own Imagine Cup at Save and looking to take the best technologies to scale for the rest of our organization. Stay tuned for the results.


[1] See
[2] While I was doing research at Tuck, I had an interesting conversation with the chief innovation officer of a major health care corporation. He said that the key to successful innovation at his company was to send the team responsible to another state. I’ve referred to this as Peter’s Law of Proximity, after a talk I heard Tom Peters give a decade ago. The principle is that the level innovation is directly proportional to the distance from headquarters. So you may need to send the team to the far country to get new ways of thinking about problems and solving them.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Imagine Cup II

Yesterday was the award ceremony in the lower level of the Louvre. It was arguably the "Oscars of Software." In nine categories, first the 3rd place team was announced, then 2nd, and 1st. Most received poster-sized checks and a silver trophy, which they held up--many with the flag of their country--for the audience and photographers. Team Mexico's fans win honorable mention for celebrating in the seats, whooping and hugging. It carried over throughout the hall.

Amidst the joy and pride was the sense that this was one world, with a shared passion to make it better, even through the nanoswitches of silicon. This was exemplified by Team Brazil who won in the Game Development category. Accepting the award, one of the students talked about the excellence of their competitors. He invited all the teams to join them on the stage for a round of applause. It was a very gracious, class act. My colleagues and I noticed and were moved.

Looking for the excellence in others, no matter where they live, is perhaps the most important take-away from this event. Coupled with the passion for applying technology to improve our environment, I had a strong sense that this new generation can make a difference and turn the tide for our planet, our island home.

Congratulations to Team Indonesia who won the new Rural Innovation Award. And thanks to the Microsoft Unlimited Potential team who were our hosts. (See the UP Blog entries, here: ) Many thanked me for taking a holiday weekend and some workdays out of my life to come to France and work as a judge for this competition. After hearing 30 presentations from contestants from as many countries, I can honestly say that this was not work; for me, it was an honor and a tutorial.

I had the privilege of meeting Paul Polak, author of Out of Poverty at the event. He was a fellow judge for the inaugural Rural Innovation Award category. Paul told me that he decided 25 years ago to have a conversation with 100 of the poorest people around the globe each year, one at at time. His objective? To listen and learn. Paul reminded me that we are ever students. And our teachers may in fact be those who we aspire to teach.

The hall where the final celebration wrought its conclusion, was next to the inverted pyramid of the Louvre, below the ground. It was a fitting.

For a photo log of the trip, see my album on Picasa. (Click on the Slideshow button.)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Imagine Cup

Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin passion-, passio suffering, being acted upon, from Latin pati to suffer…
4 b: “intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction

I am in the midst of the week-long Imagine Cup student software competition in Paris, France. (See .) Microsoft invited me to be a judge. I could not think of a more fitting follow-on to my time at Tuck/Dartmouth. I began my sabbatical with the burning desire to work with promising students, and to encourage them to aspire to be leaders in technology. I am here, at a gathering of nations, doing the same.

For the past two days, I’ve heard thirteen team presentations from thirteen countries—all in the software design category. On Monday, I will hear five more, for the new Rural Innovation Award. These are mostly college students, with a few, notable high school wizards. We heard during the opening ceremonies that over 200,000 students applied for the competition. Over 70 country-teams made it to the finals in Paris. Of these, we will select three winners. The task is daunting and the stakes are high.

I’ve written elsewhere about Jack Welch’s criteria for selecting leaders at GE—his “four E’s and a P.
[2]” Energy, Energizing, (Decision) Edge and Execution are the four. The final one is Passion. The students who made it to the Paris finals are the best of the best from the countries selected. I saw evidence of all of these five qualities among the participants. But the one that stood out most was the passion. There is something about seeing a budding entrepreneur who believes to-the-core in her product that engages me. Each group was nervous. I could see it in their hands and hear it in the waver in their voices. Yet those with passion about their project shone through the stress of stage and judgment.

We need this passion in our organizations. It enlivens us and reminds us why we came to our job in this first place, full of hope and expectation. I read of an old pastor who liked to be in the midst of new converts, because it renewed his faith. Gary Hamel, strategist and business professor, suggests that “If you’re a CIO, you need to spend a lot of time out on the fringes of the Web because that’s where the innovation’s taking place. You need to spend a lot of time with people under 25 years old.
[3] That’s another reason I am here in Paris; I’m hanging out with students, many of whom have not reached their twentieth birthday.

In recent presentations on the future of technology, I’ve proposed that “what are your leading indicators” may be the wrong question
[4]. Rather, we should be asking “who is our leading indicator?” Where do we find out about what’s happening in technology over the next three to five years? We may all cite our favorite IT journal or technology research provider. I propose that an important leading indicator is children. When we watch how youth are using technology we learn. Seeing how the students in the Imagine Cup presentations approach a problem, develop a solution, and make their pitch for why theirs is best is less an opportunity to judge than to learn.

Another side to passion is that it drives you over the edge, out of your silo and box of thinking an experience. The students here do not have a sense of limitations. They certainly face serious challenges in many of their countries, but technology is a wide-open playground. I saw this in the many applications that used cell phones as a natural gathering and delivery device. One in particular was a phone-based emergency response application that I believe has promise for the emergency response work we do at Save the Children. More on this as I learn more. Watching these young contestants pushed me to see things outside of my silo, over my horizon.

During the Tuck Roundtable in Cleveland I mentioned in my last entry
[5], I sat next to a Fortune 50 CEO at an elegant dinner overlooking Lake Erie. We got to talking about working with young people and encouraging them to pursue technology. He said that we need to instill a sense of engineering and scientific wonder in 7th graders; by the time they get to college, it may be too late. I may need to start hanging around 12-year olds.

One final word about passion. You may have noted the Latin root that indicates pain and suffering. Aside from the religious history, I’m intrigued by the pain that often accompanies the joy of pursuing your passion. This is certainly a part of the inevitable failures that come with innovation. I also saw it on the faces of contestants who did not make the semi-finals or the finals this week. They wanted to know where they had failed, how they could be better. Two in particular said they were making the rounds to see all the judges that saw their presentations. They wanted honest feedback. I gave them that. I also wrote comments and suggestions on most of the judge’s cards I entered. I want each of them to learn, to push on, and to succeed as the technology leaders I see them becoming. Most important, I did not want to see their passion ebb one iota. As John Donne so eloquently said, “That our affections kill us not, nor dye.

p.s. Friday was the Fourth of July, Independence Day in the U.S. The sun was shining. During the break, I went out on the bridge over the Seine, and shot this photo of Lady Liberty Duex, looking out in the distance. Fitting.

Lady Liberty II, overlooking the Seine. What better thing to

do than be looking over her shoulder on the 4th of July (OK,
looking around her pedestal.)

[2] See my March 28, 2008 Blog entry, here:
[3] Gary Hamel interview, CIO Magazine, November 15, 2007, p. 50-55.
[4] See my presentation "The Future of Technology," Marcus Evans CIO Summit in Lansdowne, VA, April 7, 2008; on my Presentations and Articles page linked from my web site at
[5]See my June 24 entry, here:
[6] John Donne, The Litanie, xxvii, line 242, The Collected Poems of John Donne, Wordsworth Editions, London: 1994, p. 268. See